The following is adapted from "How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids" (Little, Brown and Co., March 2017).
Tom and I sometimes exchange wry looks when we see child-free couples on the street. With their yoga mats tucked under their arms, they good-naturedly bicker about where they will go to brunch before a roll in the hay and a nap. "When I was single, I used to be annoyed by people with kids," Tom says as we pass a duo making out on a street corner. "Now I'm annoyed by couples."
The cruel paradox of weekends with kids can be boiled down to this: Parents want to relax. Kids do not. Those with younger children desperately contrive ways for their offspring to "run it out" as if they're training greyhounds; those with older kids spend their weekends as a taxi service. "Before I had kids, I thought of weekend time as available," says Caroline, a part-time freelancer and stay-at-home mom of two. "As a mom, you start calculating like a crazy person to save time any way you can. What if I skip the shower, then maybe I could get a coffee at the grocery store Starbucks so I could drink it and shop at the same time? I always think of those walk-in tubes at Chuck E. Cheese's where you try to catch the tickets: The tickets for parents are minutes and hours."
Making matters worse is that for many parents, work obligations have bled into the weekend. In 2014, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) examined work-life balance in a number of countries by measuring the pro- portion of employees who toil fifty hours or more per week, against the time they devote daily to "leisure and personal care." Out of the thirty-four member countries in the OECD, the United States ranked a dismal number twenty-nine. (Denmark is number one.)
For Tom and me, weekends are a lingering source of tension. When time is less structured and all family members have conflicting agendas, skirmishes tend to erupt. My friend Marea says that for stay-at-home mothers like herself, weekends are especially complicated, because they often don't feel comfortable or justified in asking their husbands to pitch in.
As a result, her weekends are no different from her weekdays. "Our daughter wakes me up early; I make breakfast and get her dressed," she says. "Sean sleeps in and then takes his time waking up, complete with a stretch session. After he's good and limber, he hops in a hot shower for twenty minutes to loosen up completely. By that time, I've made lunch and there are two stacks of dishes. My stress level might be getting up there by this point, especially when he comes out of the shower, sits on the couch, and nine times out of ten pulls out his phone, completely ignoring the kid. And he knows I'm annoyed." She sighs. "I just see this stuff as some sort of bad-boy act of defiance, and it's enraging."
Yet he won't offer to help, and she, hamstrung by her belief that he needs the entire weekend to recharge, doesn't feel empowered to ask — which means that seven days a week, the mundane work is dumped entirely on her.
A restful, restorative weekend with kids may not be entirely possible, but surely someone, somewhere, has found a way to elevate it beyond a bleak slog through sports, playdates, and chores.
I suddenly think of my friend Jenny. She has earned the admiration of other moms by deftly sorting out her family's weekends with forethought and planning.
We meet at our usual lunch spot, a former Cobble Hill carriage house, now a coffee shop by day and bar by night that peddles microbrews and "specialty craft drinks." I quiz her on her weekend formula and she obligingly lays it out for me. She, her husband, and their two sons begin with a family meeting. "As corny as they sound, they really do work," she says. Gather everyone, she says, and go around the circle asking each family member to say one or two things they'd like to do that weekend.
"Kids as young as two can do this," she says. "Even if the idea is not feasible, such as cotton candy for dinner, try to incorporate some aspect of it — like, kids pick the restaurant for dinner. At the very least, don't shoot down an idea right away. Nobody likes that person at a meeting."
"Say out loud," she goes on, "'This weekend I want A, B, and C' in order of importance. Assume nothing," she says. For kid activities, she and her husband alternate weekends, allowing one free pass to Run! Save Yourself. "That way," she says, "both parents have an opportunity to grab the easier job on offer — like staying home while the baby naps versus taking the big kid to the paint-ball birthday party." (Alternatively, Jenny and I know one set of parents who simply flip a coin when confronted with a kid-tivity that's particularly dread inducing.)
She suggests the following noninflammatory way to commence the bargaining process:
If you want to go play basketball for a few hours this weekend, that's fine. I'll stay home with the kids. Next weekend, I'd love to catch that new art exhibit, and you can take care of the kids.
Cannily, she is presenting this in the very way that psychologist Joshua Coleman suggested to me: as though it's a done deal, and you just have to figure out how to get there.
She is also a fan of the "after eight" bargaining chip: you'll find your spouse is much more open to the idea of you hitting the gym or grabbing a drink with friends, she says, after the kids go to sleep.
Finally, she says, "Give 'me time' freely and fully." Her husband knows not to offer her time for a relaxing bubble bath only to ignore the kids as they amble off to the bathroom to cannonball plastic penguins into Mommy's bubbles. If she tells him he's free to meet friends, she won't bring it up for the next three weeks every time she's annoyed with him.
Parents tell me that their thorniest weekend problem by far is time management — so I phone Julie Morgenstern, the New York City time management consultant. She has devised a novel approach to organizing weekends with kids that has been an instant hit with her high-powered clients. Envision your weekend, she says, as seven distinct units of time: Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon, Sunday night.
"So, if you think of your weekend as seven units of time," she says, "you can dedicate each unit to various things: quality time where you reconnect, renewal time, and household stuff." She then has clients keep each unit distinct. "I'll tell families, 'Look, stop trying to do chores and errands in every available moment," she says. "On the weekend, compress it to one unit or two, maximum."
For many families, some weekend units are quickly gobbled up by sports or birthday parties. If this is the case, she says, parents should purposefully set aside another unit or two for fun and restoration. She uses the acronym PEP: Physical activity, Escape (hobbies and activities that instantly transport you), and People (those who relax or energize you, not drain you). If you don't intentionally block out a unit for leisure, she warns, it will be consumed with another task. "Planning is exhausting, even making these damn decisions about units," she says. "But if you don't do it, you're going to squander the time. 'Free time' is not the leftover hours after everything else. Build it into your schedule, so you have something to look forward to."
This means that, as in my friend Marea's case, it's essential to get behind the idea that you need recharging time, too, or eventually you become a depleted human equivalent of The Giving Tree: a gnarled stump who is gradually stripped of her apples, wood, and branches by a child. (Described as a metaphor for a mother's unselfish love, The Giving Tree is one of those children's books that is loved and loathed in equal measure; its many Amazon detractors scorn it as "an abusive and codependent relationship" and "boy with psychopathic personality disorder uses mother-figure tree to his benefit.")
Using the seven units of time, Morgenstern sketches out a potential weekend. "So, the Friday night unit could be a potluck with other families, if you need that social connection; Saturday night and Sunday afternoon could be units for fun family outings; while the Sunday night unit could be devoted to getting ready for the week."
I ask her: Isn't the point of a weekend not to be organized — to have carefree, unstructured time? "Kids really benefit from routine," Morgenstern, also the mother of one daughter, replies firmly. "A kid's world is already pretty chaotic. So if you have a rhythm not only to your weekdays but to your weekends, like 'Oh, Friday nights is when we have pizza with friends, and Sunday afternoons is when we go out and do something physical,' the routine frees everybody from having to figure out what to do with your time, and just enjoy it."
After time units are slotted, examine the weekend schedule with a ruthless eye. Morgenstern says that when we overstuff our weekends, we needlessly inject conflict into our own lives. As she says, "You shouldn't ask, 'How much can I fit in?' but 'What's going to fuel us? What is going to energize or relax us?'"
Taking Julie Morgenstern's and Jenny's advice into consideration, I've started creating weekend scenarios that I call Everybody Sort of Wins, based on the principles of Utilitarianism developed by English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill: Everyone's happiness is of equal value, so we should bring about the greatest amount of good for the greatest number.
In every instance of weekend family time, I strategize: How can everybody sort of win? These scenarios take planning but have been extremely helpful. When I have to take Sylvie to the park one Saturday, I mitigate the tedium with a "fun" coffee (caffè mocha and, what the hell, extra whipped cream) and a highly entertaining podcast of Keith Richards on Desert Island Discs. Every time he breaks into a phlegmy cackle, I do, too, eliciting quizzical looks from other parents.
If we go on a car trip, Tom will download a podcast to listen to while he drives, Sylvie watches a movie on the iPad using her special volume-limited headphones, and I read a book (happily, I am able to read in a car). Everyone is doing what he or she likes. No one is held hostage to grating kid music.
The three of us used to do most weekend activities in unison, until I thought, why? Why, for instance, were we going to the grocery store en famille, when it made Tom tense and Sylvie antsy? I happen to love grocery shopping — so now if I need to do it on the weekends, Tom drops me off and takes Sylvie to a nearby park. They kick a soccer ball around while I obsessively inspect every new granola flavor ("Ooh, coffee-dark chocolate-hazelnut? Into the cart it goes!"). Doo-de-doo. I text Tom when I'm done and they help load the car.
Finally, the simplest, easiest Everybody Sort of Wins: Tom now sleeps in on Saturdays, and I sleep in on Sundays. Everybody sort of nearly wins! For the most part!
After my lunch with Jenny, I receive an email from her entitled Forgot one thing. In it, she issues a clarion call for women: Why are we all taking two-minute military showers on the weekends?
Think like a man, and shower with impunity, she writes. Feel no guilt! A man doesn't and wouldn't. Self-imposed guilt over not putting others' needs first at all times is a disease carried almost exclusively on the extra X-chromosome. Ladies, just get in there, lock the door, turn those knobs, and don't look back.